Taking your web design firm to the next level

May 23, 2008: 11:32 AM ET

A small business owner wonders where his marketing strategy should go next.

Alex Diaz, Houston, Texas
I run a website design firm, www.toptechexperts.com. We offer a unique, affordable and complete website design package catered to small businesses. We want to grow and get more clients. My question: Should I invest more money in promotion and advertising, or hire some salespeople to reach out to new customers? I'm a great salesperson, but my time is limited, between designing and managing. Any advice?

By Kathleen Ryan O'Connor, Fortune Small Business Contributor
Dear Alex: Your question resonated with several folks in the website design world who have found themselves in a similar position: I'm doing great work, but what's the best way to let the world know?

There isn't a one-size-fits all answer

Damian Bazadona of Situation Marketing in New York City grew his web design company from one to thirty-five people in a couple of years. How? By recognizing that web design is essentially a people business, he says.

You are selling your creativity, not just a bundle of technical options. That means it will be hard to find anyone who can match your passion when pitching. He thinks your time and money would be well spent promoting and advertising, not training a salesperson likely unfamiliar with your exact vision. "I'd rather invest time in doing things to get clients to tell their friends," Bazadona says. "It's all word of mouth." He also recommends focusing on retention and getting more work from existing clients. "If you treat them great, they are going to find more money to spend with you."

Spend time, define your market

Are you trying to convince local merchants with no existing web presence to use your firm to build a no-frills site? Then maybe hiring a salesperson or two doing cold calls might actually make sense. But if your product is more sophisticated, focusing on higher-level customer contact is likely to work better.

Dana E. Nybo, academic director of web design and interactive media at the Art Institutes International Minnesota wonders, "What is his strength? He may be a great salesman, but if he's a great designer and that's where his heart lies, then hire a salesperson."

Of course, all that business is worthless unless you have someone in the firm to follow through. Nybo says that Douglas Brull, a colleague at the institute, is going through the same type of issue. Brull, faculty for web design and interactive media department at the Institute, helped launch the web design firm Grandpa-George one year ago, but they are growing faster than anticipated, with three partners, four interns and two contractors.

He wonders if they should be going after specific clients or launching a more wholesale advertising campaign. "We are going back and forth on that," Brull says.

For now they are trying to use scarce dollars creatively for targeted marketing and for building a community around the Grandpa-George aesthetic. He points out that money is no longer the sole currency for visibility. Viral marketing can build a brand without a fat corporate budget. The beta launch of their new site a few weeks ago was viewed in 46 countries and garnered "amazingly positive" feedback. "We're investing in ourselves," Brull says. "We are trying to use what we have the most of and that's ideas and talent."

Give us your advice: Check out recent "Ask & Answer" questions.

Related links:

Setting the budget for your Web site

How to stand out on the Internet

Building your first business Web site

Should your business be on Facebook?

Luring prospects to your website

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